Ancient Chemical Warfare

A paper by Simon James (University of Leicester) at the AIA is getting quite a bit of press attention. The abstract doesn’t seem to be online, so we’ll have to give you the gist in our own words. According to James, a deliberately-piled group of twenty Roman soldiers’ bodies found in excavations at Dura Europos died not through the usual sword or spear, but by asphyxiation. The scene was a battle with the Sassanian Persians ca 256 B.C. during which time the Romans tried undermining the walls in one of their time-honoured methods of conducting a seige.  Then, in Dr. James’ words:

“It is evident that, when mine and countermine met, the Romans lost the ensuing struggle. Careful analysis of the disposition of the corpses shows they had been stacked at the mouth of the countermine by the Persians, using their victims to create a wall of bodies and shields, keeping Roman counterattack at bay while they set fire to the countermine, collapsing it, allowing the Persians to resume sapping the walls. This explains why the bodies were where they were found. But how did they die? For the Persians to kill twenty men in a space less than 2m high or wide, and about 11m long, required superhuman combat powers—or something more insidious.”

Apparently the tunnel also had evidence of bitumen and sulphur, which give off noxious fumes when burnt.

“The Persians will have heard the Romans tunnelling,” says James, “and prepared a nasty surprise for them. I think the Sasanians placed braziers and bellows in their gallery, and when the Romans broke through, added the chemicals and pumped choking clouds into the Roman tunnel. The Roman assault party were unconscious in seconds, dead in minutes. Use of such smoke generators in siege-mines is actually mentioned in classical texts, and it is clear from the archaeological evidence at Dura that the Sasanian Persians were as knowledgeable in siege warfare as the Romans; they surely knew of this grim tactic.”

Our friend Adrienne Mayor mentions the evidence at Dura Europos in her book on biological and chemical warfare in the ancient world: Greek Fire (pp. 224-225). Folks can read that tome and decide for themselves whether this warrants being called the “first” use of chemical warfare (as is being bruited about by some news coverage).

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